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High tech catches on at high altitude

SCOTT WILLOUGH
THE DENVER POST
The Denver Post
ALL |

VAIL – Not so long ago, simply taking a cellphone out of your pocket was considered bad form on the ski slopes. Chatting on the chairlift or, heaven forbid, taking a call on the catwalk was a social sin akin to leaving your phone turned on in church.

But that was then (and oh, so 2007), before anyone in ski country had ever heard of Mark Zuckerberg and that silly Facebook fad, or folks like Lance Armstrong and Lindsey Vonn had launched Twitter accounts.

These days helmets have Bluetooth headsets and video camera mounts, every major ski resort offers a mobile app, and if you have a lift pass at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone or Heavenly (Calif.), you’re probably already a part of the EpicMix.

“From Day One, I’m definitely on board,” said John Johnson, 28, who was talking up the new social media app from Vail Resorts between runs on Vail’s opening day. “(EpicMix) is already tracking your runs, vertical feet skied, days skied and po wder days skied, but the website isn’t up yet. By the time Christmas rolls around, though, you’ll be able to tell all that.”

Johnson is a charter member of what could be considered the millennial ski club. A regular on Facebook and a smart-phone owner, he skied nearly 30 days last winter and plans to top that after buying Vail’s multi-resort Epic Pass this season.

What’s more, he plans to brag about it all over the World Wide Web.

“I don’t do Twitter, but (EpicMix) links up with your Facebook and all that,” Johnson said. “It will even award you pins for different accomplishments: skiing this bowl or that bowl, all the different mountains. It should be pretty cool, so I’m excited about it.”

By now, it should come as no surprise that the skiing industry – just like all the rest – has gone digital. Ski and snowboard apps are everywhere, whether it’s GPS-based trail trackers, backcountry slope inclinometers or resort-specific info updates offering live feeds of on-mountain data.

What may come as a surprise, however, is that the skiing industry suddenly finds itself at the forefront of the digital highway. Making its debut in December, Vail Resorts’ new EpicMix app is being lauded for setting the bar among participation sports as the first to combine social media with physical performance measures.

And the kids are loving it.

“This Epic Mix app for @vailresorts is super dope. Like Nike+ on another level. So stoked to use,” tweeted @chriskahle.

“This combines 3 of my favorite things: skiing, social media and technology,” added @adamseitz.

Sure, some may write off all-but-anonymous Twitter posts as so much cyber-gibberish. But there is no shortage of real-life jibbers out there who have grown up on technology and rely upon the tentacles of social networking the way previous generations shared stories or made ski dates through old-fashioned ski clubs.

“There’s alrea dy a whole term that exists in ski culture – apres ski – that’s used to describe talking about your ski day, sharing tall tales by the fire. That type of socializing is just natural to skiing,” said Mike Slone, director of online marketing for Broomfield-based Vail Resorts. “Fast forward to this century and you see a lot of that happening on Twitter and Facebook. People still share, but the reach and ability to share on Facebook is so much easier. When you add in something like EpicMix, what we wanted to do is take that tall-tale, apres ski bragging and build it into that experience that people are already doing with Facebook and Twitter, enhanced with statistics you can share with friends and family.”

In a way, EpicMix turns skiing and snowboarding on the mountain into an interactive game that can be played both on and off the slopes.

Using the radio frequency (RF) technology Vail Resorts began experimenting with three years ago, data is automatically captured from RF-enabled chips embedded in season passes and PEAKS lift tickets every time skiers and snowboarders pass the scanners installed at 89 lifts across Vail’s five mountain resorts (Arapahoe Basin and recently acquired Northstar-at-Tahoe are not part of the mix). By tracking lift rides, computers tally what days users are on the mountain and estimate the vertical feet skied, recognizing those who play along with commemorative digital “pins” for various achievements.

Best of all, the passive technology doesn’t require users to do anything but ski or ride, making it accessible to everyone with a pass around their necks – even those who don’t know a text from a tweet.

“It was important to us not to interfere with the normal ski experience. We wanted to enhance it, but not take anything away,” Slone said.

Those who are skeptical of the entire process can have the RF chip removed from their ski pass with a simple hole-punch. But they will still need to have their passes scanned at the base of the mountain in order to access the lifts.


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